Dealing with Bee Robbing Frenzies

By Howland Blackiston

Robbing is a situation in which a beehive is attacked by invaders from other hives. The situation can be serious for a number of reasons:

  • A hive defending itself against robbing will fight to the death. This battle can result in the loss of many little lives and even destroy an entire colony. Tragedy!
  • If the hive is unable to defend itself in a robbing situation, the invading army can strip the colony of all its food. Disaster!
  • Being robbed changes the disposition of a hive. The bees can become nasty, aggressive, and difficult to deal with. Ouch!

Many new beekeepers mistake a robbing situation as being the opposite of a problem. Look at all that activity around the hive! Business must be booming! It’s a natural mistake. The hive’s entrance is furious with activity. Bees are everywhere. Thousands of them are darting in, out, and all around the hive. But look more closely. . . .

Knowing the difference between normal and abnormal (robbing) behavior

A busy hive during the nectar flow may have a lot of activity at the entrance, but the normal behavior of foraging bees looks different than a robbing situation. Foraging bees go to and fro with a purpose. They shoot straight out of the hive and are quickly up and away. Returning foragers are weighted down with nectar and pollen and land solidly when returning to their hive. Some even undershoot the entrance and crash-land just short of the bottom board.

Normal activity at the hive’s entrance can look unusually busy. This is when young worker bees take their orientation flights. Facing the hive, they hover up, down, and back and forth. They’re orienting themselves to the location of their hive. You may see hundreds of these young bees floating around the front of the hive, but there’s nothing aggressive or frantic about their exploratory behavior.

You may also see a lot of activity during the afternoons when the drones are in flight, searching enthusiastically for virgin queens from other colonies. These drone flights are normal frenzies and should not be mistaken for robbing behavior.

In contrast to these normal busy situations, robbing takes on an aggressive and sinister look. Try to recognize the warning signs:

  • Robbing bees approach the hive without being weighted down with nectar. They may not shoot right into the entrance. Instead, they fly from side to side, waiting for an opportune moment to sneak past the guard bees.
  • If you look closely, you may see bees fighting at the entrance or on the ground in front of the hive. They are embraced in mortal combat. These are the guard bees defending their colony to the death. This behavior is a sure indication of robbing.
  • Unlike foraging bees that leave the hive empty-handed, robbing bees leave the hive heavily laden with honey, which makes flying difficult. Robbing bees tend to climb up the front of the hive before taking off. Once they’re airborne, there’s a characteristic dip in their flight path.

Putting a stop to a robbing attack

If you think you have a robbing situation under way, don’t waste time. Use one or more of the following suggestions to halt robbing and prevent disaster:

  • Reduce the size of the entrance to the width of a single bee. Use your entrance reducer or clumps of grass stuffed along the entrance. Minimizing the entrance will make it far easier for your bees to defend the colony. But be careful. If the temperature has turned hot, narrowing the entrance impairs ventilation.
  • Soak a bedsheet in water and cover the hive that’s under attack. The sheet (heavy with water) drapes to the ground and prevents robbing bees from getting to the entrance. The bees in the hive seem to be able to find their way in and out. During hot, dry weather, rewet the sheet as needed. Be sure to remove the sheet after one or two days. By that time the robbing behavior should have stopped.

Preventing robbing in the first place

The best of all worlds is to prevent robbing from happening at all. Here’s what you can do:

  • Never leave honey out in the open where the bees can find it — particularly near the hive and during a dearth in the nectar flow. Easy pickings can set off a robbing situation.
  • When harvesting honey, keep your supers covered after you remove them from the colony.
  • Be very careful when handling sugar syrup. Try not to spill a single drop when feeding your bees. The slightest amount anywhere but in the feeder can trigger disaster.
  • Until your hive is strong enough to defend itself, use the entrance reducer to restrict the size of the opening the bees must protect. Also, be sure to close off the ventilation groove in the inner cover, if yours has one.
  • Never feed your bees in the wide open (such as filling a dish with syrup or honey and putting it near the entrance of the hive).
  • Avoid using a Boardman entrance feeder. Being so close to the entrance, these feeders can sometimes incite robbing behavior.
beekeeping-robbing
Courtesy of Howland Blackiston

Don’t use a Boardman entrance feeder — the smell of the syrup can entice strange bees to rob your hive.

Don’t be tempted to make it easier for your bees to access the syrup you feed them. One beekeeper put shims between the hive-top feeder and hive to create a gap that makes it easier for the bees to access the syrup. The result was a furious robbing attack from other bees. Keep your feeding device where only your colony can reach it.